The Gender-Neutral Prefix “Mx.” Has Been Added To The Oxford English Dictionary, Because Not Everyone Is A Mr. Or A Ms.

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Linguists have long debated prescriptive and descriptive models of language: Does the dictionary describe the words already in use or prescribe how we use them? The gender-neutral prefix “Mx,” which was already in use by some government forms and banks in the U.K. when the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) decided to include it, is a perfect example of the descriptive model. With the genderqueer community in need of an honorific that doesn’t force anyone into a binary, the dictionary stepped up to meet popular demand. OED Assistant Editor Jonathan Dent told The Sunday Times, “This is an example of howthe English language adapts to people’s needs, with people using language in ways that suit them rather than letting language dictate identity to them.”

The preferences of pangender, bigender, agender, and otherwise genderqueer people have also given rise to gender-neutral pronouns like ze, hir, and they, with the latter now being commonly used by journalists not just to describe genderqueer people, but also to refer to people of unspecified gender (e.g., to address the reader without assuming the gender of their romantic partner — see? I just did it there).

So where does the word come from?

A report released on the tumblr The Genderqueer Activist details the history and use of “Mx.,” which first appeared in 1980. Many government and private organizations in the U.K. have been using it since the turn of the century.

How is the U.S. stacking up against the U.K. on this front? Typing “Mx” into the Merriam-Webster dictionary yielded “MX: a mobile ICBM having up to 10 independently targeted nuclear warheads,” so maybe we’ve got some catching up to do. I also couldn’t find “hir” or “ze” in Merriam-Webster.

Is Mx. the new Ms.?

While the prefix Ms. was viewed as revolutionary when it first became popular in the ’60s to discourage defining women by their marital status, a user of the Google group net.nlang all the way back in 1982 was already suggesting that Ms., along with Mr., Miss, and Mrs., was behind the times:

It wasn’t much of a step to go from Miss/Mrs to Ms; after all, the issue should be that gender is unimportant. How about one generic title for everyone? For instance, M. Smith, M. Jones. But that’s flawed, it might be confused with Monsieur, a blatantly sexist word. From now on, we should all go by Mx, pronounced “mix” or “mux.” This will make the world safe for democracy by concealing our genders from the sexist element.

Huh, I was just pronouncing it “M.X.” Mix is already a word (though, granted, words with multiple meanings are a thing) and “Mux” sounds like “musk,” so neither sound quite right to me, but now that I think of it, “M.X. Smith” sounds incredibly foolish. Oops. 

So should you start going by Mx.?

While some people strongly identify as cisgender or transgender and will prefer Mr. or Ms., and some are strongly genderqueer and immediately embrace gender-neutral words as they emerge, I fall into what I believe is a significant portion of people who don’t feel strongly about their gender identity. I identify as a woman mainly out of convenience, and if it were more convenient, I’d by happy to go by words like “they” and “Mx.”

However, gender-neutral words are still largely seen as exclusive to the genderqueer community. Gender-nonconforming people’s ability to use these words is more important than mine because they don’t have another comfortable way to identify themselves. Eventually, though, wouldn’t it be great to see a shift toward people of all gender identities using gender-neutral words? It would signify that our gender identities don’t define us, no matter what they are — and that sounds like progress on all fronts.

So, I was happy to read in The Genderqueer Activist’s report that Mx. “can be used by anyone regardless of gender or marital status.” This makes its purpose twofold: to provide an option for people who do not identify with a gender and to avoid defining people by their gender. 

At my age, people don’t typically address me with honoraries, and if they did, I’d be afraid that most people would find an attempt to correct “Ms.” to “Mx.” confusing. And if I addressed anyone else this way, they would probably view it as a typo — something journalists can’t afford to have in their emails. But if more dictionaries adopt this word and it gains widespread enough use that others know what it signifies, I’ll welcome the chance to use it. Thankfully, the OED just brought us one step closer to this point.  

Images: Pandawhale; Giphy (2)

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